The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
One of the most profound and spiritually foundational experiences of my life happened over the course of a summer when I served as a hospital chaplain. It was the summer before my final year of seminary and in The Episcopal Church, a unit of clinical pastoral education is mandatory. I had chosen to do the summer intensive program at Sibley Hospital. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I was confident I would learn a lot in the process and, I learned way more than I ever bargained for. The first day was essentially orientation. I could tell you at the end of the day where the chapel was and about the cafeteria—two fairly important things. Day two, I was to begin making rounds on my unit. I had my newly minted chaplain badge and my pager and off I went. And off my pager went, almost immediately.
I went to the charge nurse on my unit to ask why I’d been paged. She told me that one of the patients had died. His family was gathered, and they’d asked for a Roman Catholic priest to be with them and to pray with them. There was no Roman Catholic priest at the hospital, nor would there be any time soon, and would I go? The words that came out of my mouth were, “Of course.” What was happening inside was sheer terror. Just on the face of it, I’m not a Roman Catholic priest. At the time. I wasn’t even a priest, and I was a woman to boot. No one had taught me what to do in that situation. I was green, very green, and truthfully, I’d never been around a dead body before either.
I felt woefully inadequate and ill prepared, but I took a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other and prayed like crazy that God would be with me and more importantly, God would be with that family and that God would show me what to do. I knocked on the door and was welcomed in. There were four or five family members around the periphery of the room and also what appeared to be the patriarch of the family who had died. I asked if they would like to pray and they said, yes. We gathered around his bed and held hands and prayed, commending him to God’s care, thanking God for the gift of his life and that God would be with the family who were in grief and in pain. When we finished our prayers, I anointed him, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. Then I asked them if they wanted me to stay or if I could do anything else. They said, no, and they thanked me profusely and hugged me before I left the room.
What I learned in that moment, on day two, was that God will give you what you need to do that which God has called you to do. The second important lesson that I learned in that moment is when people are in need, and particularly in pain, they don’t ask for your credentials. They’re just glad that you showed up to be with them, to walk with them, to pray with them—important lessons that have stayed with me and manifested themselves so many times over since that summer of 2006, which leads us to our gospel lesson today. it’s known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan and it’s probably one of the best known and most beloved parables of all of them, which is a blessing, but it can also be a little bit of a challenge because we’ve heard it so many times. We have hospitals named the Good Samaritan and we’ve tended to sort of romanticize that story.
What I’d like to do with you this morning is to invite you into the story using a first century Jewish lens, because that’s how it would have been heard. As you do this, imagine yourself in the story. Who in the story do you most relate to? Jesus? The lawyer? The man in the ditch? The priest? The Levite? The good Samaritan? The innkeeper? If we’re really honest, and church is a good place to be honest, I suspect most of us want to relate to the good Samaritan, don’t we? That’s understandable. But stay with me because what I want you to imagine is being the unnamed, unidentified man in the ditch, who’s been beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for halfdead.
The story opens with a lawyer who would have been a biblical scholar, who knew the Scriptures and Torah forwards and backwards, asking Jesus a question to test him. It’s a test because the lawyer knows the answer to the question he’s asking: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, using the wonderful Socratic method, answers the question with a question. You’re the biblical scholar, what does Scripture say and how do you interpret them? “We’re to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves,” thereby pulling together teachings from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And Jesus says, good answer. “Do this, and you will live.” Now, if the lawyer had just stopped there, everything would have gone swimmingly, and you probably wouldn’t know the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But he pressed on: “Who exactly, teacher, is my neighbor?” Well, as Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, points out, it’s a fair question, but sort of obnoxious because what the lawyer was actually asking is not who is my neighbor, but who is not? Who can I ignore? Who can I exclude? Who do I not have to love?
So, Jesus tells the story about an unnamed man coming down from Jerusalem toward Jericho. He’s robbed, he’s beaten, he’s stripped and left for halfdead. Along the way, come first a priest and then a Levite—religious leaders, let’s just point that out—who pass by. Now, lest we get very sanctimonious and judgmental, it’s not necessarily surprising that they passed by for a few different reasons. But what Torah teaches and what they knew was that their responsibility was to check on the man and if the man was alive, to help him, and if he was dead, to cover him and to go immediately to get help. They were human. They failed what they’d been taught. Don’t you and I fail from time to time?
Scripture is silent on why they pass by, but so many people over the centuries have posited different views of what might have been going on, including none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. who suggested they may have just been afraid because that was a notorious 17-mile stretch with lots of twists and turns that was heavily populated by robbers. They might have quite humanly been fearful that the same thing would have happened to them. So, let’s cut them some slack. Then Jesus offers up something that would have been shocking. Who stops? A Samaritan. Everyone would have assumed the man in the ditch was a Jew and Samaritans and Jews were enemies. They had great enmity for one another. They didn’t mix. He was the least likely person. So, as you’re imagining being the man in the ditch, think of someone who would be the least likely person you can imagine would stop and help you. Then, would you accept their help? I expect, yes. What Jesus was doing was stripping away the status quo; stripping away the artificial human boundaries and definitions of who is my neighbor and essentially saying that everyone is your neighbor, particularly someone in need.
Then he asked the lawyer, which of the three do you think was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? The lawyer had no real option, but to say, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus said, right, “Go and do likewise.” Go and do likewise. What Jesus was teaching everyone with ears to listen and hearts to respond, is that loving God and loving our neighbor is an active faith. It’s great to know the Scriptures. It’s great to understand what is required. It is great to feel mercy and compassion, but we are called to act when someone’s in need. Do this; go and do likewise. Just as it’s written in the Letter of James: we are called not only to be hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word. We are called, my friends, to love God with all that we are and all that we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s a pretty straightforward message. Jesus meant it to be understood as everyone, no exceptions.In just a few minutes, we’re going to have the privilege of participating in eight baptisms which includes question and response in the course of renewing our baptismal covenant. I invite you to reflect on this gospel lesson today and in particular as you are asked:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
—I will with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
—I will with God’s help.
Remember today, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Remember what Jesus taught: that God sometimes works in mysterious ways through the most unlikely people. And maybe, just maybe, one of those unlikely people is intended to be you. Amen.